The case of teen Louisiana death row inmate Willie Francis and his survival of the electric chair brought attention to the serious issues in the justice system for Blacks. Francis ultimately met his fate by execution, but some historians believe he was unfairly treated in the process.
Francis was 16 years old when he was arrested in 1945 for the murder of St. Martinville pharmacist, Andrew Thomas the year prior. Writer Gilbert King, who penned the book, The Execution of Willie Francis, suggested in 2008 that Thomas may have been sexually abusing Francis.
After Francis’ arrest in Texas for being in the area of another crime, he was found with Thomas’ wallet on his person and extradited to St. Martinville. Despite two written confessions from Francis, he pleaded not guilty to the murder. The gun used to kill Thomas, the holster of which Francis supposedly led police to, belonged to a sheriff’s deputy who’d previously threatened Thomas. Despite the lack of evidence Francis was involved in the murder, he was sentenced to death to face the state’s mobile electric chair nicknamed “Gruesome Gertie.”
On May 3, 1946, the then 17-year-old Francis was strapped to the chair and gave his final words. When the guards flipped the switch, they were taken aback that Francis did not perish and instead yelled out loud for them to stop.
A young lawyer, dismayed at the fact that the state wished to attempt the execution once more, stepped in to defend Francis. The case also gained the support of Black and White Americans who felt Francis returning to the chair was cruel and unusual punishment under the rules of the U.S. Constitution and should be spared.
A 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision to execute Francis, although the judge who made the ultimate deciding vote sought to file a secret pardon for the teen. However, the state carried out its execution on May 9, 1947 when Francis was 18.
You can read more details about the Francis case HERE.
Ernest Gaines’ 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying, was based on the Francis case.
Provide your email below to receive our daily newsletter!